Screenplays are structure. -William Goldman
A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.
American movies are about what happens next. -Richard Toscan
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law. -Louis Sullivan
What is structure? Structure is form. Form follows function. What is the function of a movie? To entertain and inspire. Why do people go to movies? To be entertained and to be inspired.
The only way that an audience can relate to a movie story in order for one or both of those things to happen is to identify with its contents in some manner. The only way they can identify is through character. Give the character a universal redeeming quality (the Beatitudes and the Boy Scout Law pretty much covers them all) and a flaw (some value out of balance that we can all relate to – try the Seven Deadly Sins).
Then send that character on a quest for something that s/he’s been afraid to pursue but current circumstances compel him/her to make the Emotionally-Challenging Decision, and you’re off and running. As long as you can keep the character coming face to face with emotionally-challenging dilemmas where his/her “good angel” (Conscience Character) and his “bad angel” (Tempter Character) do battle for his soul while the antagonist pushes him/her to reconsider the quest, you keep the audience’s interest.
And that’s all you need to know about structure. (But, he goes on…)
We hear writers complain about the “Hollywood Movie Template,” then set about to reinvent the structure wheel. Why, we may ask? So that stories are less predictable, they reply.
The problem of predictability is not with the “template.”
The game of modern Chess dates back over a thousand years. It uses the same archetypal characters every time and has three basic “acts” – Opening, Middle Game, and End Game. Yet, there are seemingly an infinite number of variations. Western music has twelve basic tones, yet listen to all the music that has been composed.
The problem of story predictability is solved with creative imagination while remaining within the principles of structure, which have their roots in antiquity and have been proven over the millennia. But, let’s back up and ask some fundamental questions to see if structure does need to evolve.
What is the purpose of Story? Why do we tell stories? The original purpose of Story was to pass tribal history and mythology to future generations. This was done in an oral fashion since recording it on a physical medium had yet to be developed. Creating a structure with emotionally escalating “signposts” allowed the listener to remember the story easier.
Aristotle (350 BCE) came along and codified all things, and with story-telling wisely stated that Story has a beginning, middle, and end. That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Then, Horace, Roman poet and statesman, stated that dramatic structure consisted of five acts. That fell out of favor, then was revived during the Renaissance, then jettisoned for the four-act structure, only to be revitalized again by Gustave Freytag.
The five-part structure unfolds as follows: 1. Exposition, 2. Rising Action, 3. Climax, 4. Falling Action, 5. Denouement/Resolution/Catastrophe. I have no idea how or why Gustave makes a distinction between Falling Action and Resolution, but there it is.
But then you take a look at Alfred Uhry’s play Driving Miss Daisy, which takes place in 25 scenes, or Pulp Fiction, which steals its circular structure from Before The Rain (Milcho Manchevski), or Momento, which steals its structure from Betrayal (Harold Pinter), etc., and you wonder, so okay, what’s all this rigidity about structure?
Architect Louis Sullivan stated that form follows function, an idea he stole from American Sculptor Horatio Greenough. This goes along with Richard Toscan’s quote “American movies are about what happens next.” None of these dudes get to the main point, which is to keep the audience entertained until you can deliver your message, which is the function.
Let’s not forget the purpose of structure. The purpose of structure is to keep the audience involved in the story. The purpose of Story is to make a point. If you don’t have a point to make, your story is rather useless, in my humble opinion.
The function of Story is to make a point. Over the millennia, a form has evolved that fulfills that function. Form follows function. But, what are the building blocks of structure? Could it be turning points? What are turning points? Are they action-based? Where does action come from? Could it come from character decisions? Why does a character make decisions? Could it be because s/he wants something? What makes that decision interesting? Perhaps the character wants something s/he’s afraid to pursue but is compelled to pursue it in spite of fears. Why should the audience be interested in whether this character succeeds or not? Could it be that the character has been introduced in such a manner, i.e. shows a redeeming quality, that the audience identifies with him/her? Then through vicarious identification the audience cares for and desires this character to succeed?
EMOTIONAL SUBSTANCE is the link and the key to engaging reader/audience!
So, I conclude that structure has no basis without character – a character that emotionally involves the audience. And structure comes from an escalating string of emotionally-challenging dilemmas and decisions that this character makes until s/he succeeds or fails. Act one provides an opportunity for the audience to get to know the character; act two presents the emotional and questing journeys through the transformational world; act three allows the unfolding of the main character’s final battle with the antagonist, or shadow self and success or failure.
However, the success or failure has two levels. The character can succeed in his/her quest but fail to overcome personal emotional obstacles as in The Sweet Smell Of Success. Or the character can fail in the outer quest but succeed in overcoming his/her fears as in Wall Street. Or the character can succeed on both levels, external quest and internal challenge, as in a kazillion Hollywood films.
Whether you imagine your movie in 3 acts, or 4 acts, or 12 beats, or 22 beats, or 25 scenes, or travel in reverse, or go in a circle, or proceed through 9 seasons and 198 TV episodes, there are fundamental structural elements that must be present in order for your story to have any impact. Those elements begin and end with character. Without character leading the charge and creating the structure, plot, theme, obstacles, reversals, etc., your story quickly grows banal, empty, and boring. I find the Mission Impossible franchise boring for that very reason. No character growth and evolution that I can see or feel.
My suggestion is that you construct a complex character with redeeming qualities and flaws and values out of balance, a character that strongly desires something but is afraid to go after it until s/he receives vital information (or boon) that compels him/her to make the decision to take the journey.
How you present that story is called story weaving. As Godard says, you don’t necessarily have to present it in a linear fashion. However, you DO have to justify your story weaving with your thematic intent. If you are weaving your story non-linearly to be cute, give it up. If you have a point to make and your weaving is intricate to that point, as in BeforeThe Rain or Momento, then by all means proceed.
Otherwise, get creative with the dreaded “Hollywood Movie Template.”